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10 June 2008

"This Land's a Homeland?" By Doug Tarnopol


Yup; yours truly wrote this; just published in first volume, first issue of Nova Águia, a new journal (mostly Portuguese, but my and other non-Portuguese-speaking folks' essays were left in the original alongside the translation). I had to stop myself rewriting this, again -- not too pleased with it. Anywho, here 'tis:

“This Land’s a Homeland?”

By Doug Tarnopol

Bush is a fascist!

Such statements have been heard around the United States, and no doubt elsewhere, for most of the decade. Yet no other political statement engenders dismissal as instantaneously in polite, educated circles. It’s considered ridiculously juvenile at best; perniciously dishonest at worst. There is some truth to that reaction. As early as 1945, Orwell was classifying fascism among “meaningless words”—along with democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, and justice:

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’…Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements [containing such words]…are almost always made with intent to deceive.[1]

Of course, Orwell knew very well exactly in what fascism consists. Moreover, Orwell was a student of language and propaganda, as tough (if not tougher) on his fellow socialists as he was on those on the right. Clearly, he knew that each of those “meaningless words” had a quite precise and politically crucial meaning. What he objected to was the mindless (and mindful) debasement of language—and thus of thought. I find it hard to disagree with such an objection.

So, following Orwell, we ought to be precise about what we mean by fascism. Definitions abound. I prefer Umberto Eco’s fourteen-part attempt[2], which I will summarize and closely paraphrase below:

  1. A cult of syncretistic tradition.
  2. The rejection of modernism.
  3. A cult of action for action’s sake.
  4. The equation of disagreement with treason.
  5. An overwhelming fear of difference.
  6. An appeal to a frustrated, economically disadvantaged middle class. (One might say that the ever-present frustration of an exploited middle class is itself exploited by the fascist state apparatus in order to mobilize the populace against internal and external enemies.)
  7. A social identity based on the mystic chords of Nation and constantly besieged by internal and external plots and threats.
  8. A metronomic oscillation between feelings of superiority and inferiority toward all enemies, foreign and domestic.
  9. The notion of life as permanent warfare.
  10. A species of anti-intellectual mass or popular elitism, as part of the appeal to the bourgeoisie.
  11. Hero-worship, and elevation of the Hero to the goal of citizenhood.
  12. A machismo that transfers the will to power to the sexual realm, punishing all deviance from traditional roles.
  13. A qualitative populism, or, a monolithic General Will, interpretable only by the Leader’s mystic connection with, and through his embodiment of, that Will. Parliaments, by definition wholly corrupt and parasitic, are excluded from that mystic connection between Leader and People, and are thus superfluous.
  14. Newspeak as the lingua franca.

I cannot peruse this list without a vertiginous feeling, having seen my country deteriorate so openly since September 11, 2001. Yet I cannot forget that the Bush era has not been nearly as sharp a break with America’s past as many on the so-called left believe. Nor are the elements of fascism limited to the Bush Junta, or even to the Republicans. An analysis of the universal adoption of the term “homeland” since 9/11, when viewed against the precisely drawn backdrop of Eco’s definition, demonstrates just how hollow, and dangerously misleading, the slogan that began this essay actually is.

* * *

The notion of a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security was first introduced by a conservative Democrat, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut (now an Independent), and a moderate Republican, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, one month after 9/11.[3] The Bush administration opposed the legislation.[4] Lieberman responded with a bill, ultimately supported by the administration, which was cosponsored by Specter and four Democrats: Max Cleland (Georgia), Richard Durbin (Illinois), Bob Graham (Florida), and Harry Reid (Nevada).[5]

Unopposed was the use of the term “homeland” to describe the United States. Even today, a visit to the Department of Homeland Security website reveals not only that helpful, color-coded threat-level indicator and a photograph of a resolute President Bush, but also an “above-the-fold” link to the 2007 National Strategy for Homeland Security.[6] The no doubt ghost-written introduction to this document, signed by Bush, states the following: “As we face the dual challenges of preventing terrorist attacks in the Homeland and strengthening our Nation’s preparedness for both natural and man-made disasters, our most solemn duty is to protect the American people.”[7] In fact, the word “homeland”—or its more portentous sibling, “Homeland”—appears no fewer than ten times in the 579-word letter. A quick visit to the websites of the Democrat-controlled congressional committees on homeland security provides more evidence of this touching linguistic bipartisanship, with the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs helpfully providing a history of itself for patriotic web-surfers. As per usual, the elite media adopted the government’s new term, helping to embed it in its consumers’ minds, though a Google search will quickly turn up (mostly cosmetic) objections to the term from the left and right.[8]

* * *

So, what’s in a word, and what’s “homeland” got to do with fascism? Quite a bit on both counts, actually. Pick a speech of Goebbels’ at random—say his famous Sportpalast speech on total war from February 18, 1943, shortly after Stalingrad.[9] You’ll find thirteen references to the homeland—albeit out of 9,521 words, so well below Bush’s rate. Furthermore, the German word for homeland—Heimatland—was also the title of an early pro-Nazi publication edited by Wilhelm Weiss, later editor of the official party organ, Völkischer Beobachter, as well as a high-level Nazi official.[10]

Fine, you say, “homeland” was used both by post-9/11 American and Nazi politicians and media figures. So what? Surely many other terms were also used by both, such as “auto” and “beer.” I grant you that, of course. Hitler was a vegetarian. So am I. Am I thus polluted by fascism? Clearly not.

To judge the matter appropriately, we must return to Eco’s list and consider the use of “homeland” against the backdrop of the political landscape of post-9/11 America. Only then can we deal appropriately with the danger inherent in the introductory quote.

A cult of syncretistic tradition. Syncretism is the attempt to unite disparate, often mutually contradictory tenets within a belief system in a manner that leaves the minimal remainder of cognitive dissonance. Or, to put it more pithily: it’s the application of doublethink within a reactionary program. For years, both Republicans and “New” Democrats have been pushing the troika of Nation, God, and Family to the exclusion of any potential class-based identity-formation. The Spanish Falangists would have found this just peachy, though they would have looked askance at our free-market rhetoric. (What they would have thought about the reality of an increasingly corporatist state and dying unions, however, is perhaps another story.) In any event, plenty of blood is being spilled nowadays for our precious soil, to say nothing of the erection of walls on our (southern) borders to keep any dusky pathogens away from the body politic.

The rejection of modernism. Without diving into an endless debate on just what “modernism” means, let’s instead reflect more profitably on the backlash against the increasing level of civilization in the United States since the 1960s, a backlash that is virtually unanimous among elites, from Ronald Reagan’s announcement of a new dawn (“morning in America”) after a long night of economic, cultural, sexual, and ethical “permissiveness” (i.e., progress) to Barack Obama’s vaunted “transcendence,” sun-god-like, above the same. Virtually across the spectrum, the notion of a return to true American values pervades all political discussion. I guess one can go home again.

A cult of action for action’s sake. In the name of defending the homeland, both Republicans and Democrats maintain that we must “go on the offense,” leaving pesky issues like international law—and even common sense—to limp-wristed navel-gazers. As Chomsky has so often pointed out, debate on foreign policy is limited to tactics: for example, how much scorn should we heap upon “a foreign veto” over our desire to commit aggression at whim unilaterally? Find me a difference among John Kerry, Barack Obama, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and George W. Bush on that score. For more on this always-present element in American life, see Richard Hofstadter’s classic book on anti-intellectualism.[11]

The equation of disagreement with treason. For several years after 9/11, this point was too obvious to ignore. Even now, fear of invasion of the homeland reigns—and too often reins in healthy debate on non-tactical policy differences. At least in elite circles.

An overwhelming fear of difference. Fear has been nurtured like viper in the bosom of America by our various Tiberiuses for decades. Since before 9/11, as Michael Moore brilliantly portrayed in Bowling for Columbine, fear has been pounded into the citizenry—to say nothing of long-standing racial, sexual, and gender fears; fear of immigrants; fear of anything that smacks of nonconformity. Not much has changed for the better since Tocqueville noted how conformist our brave new democracy was in the early nineteenth century.

Perhaps I may drop the italicized tags, as the elements of Eco’s definition now begin to blend into one another. Our increasingly disappearing middle class is well and truly pissed off, and who can blame them? The question is, who will they blame, especially as the economy takes a serious nose dive in 2008? Manipulators abound, but corporate power is such in this business-run society that the target will most likely not be the true culprits but some collection of Goldsteins, both here and abroad, all poised to attack “real Americans.” Unsurprisingly, these shadowy enemies, such as Al Qaida—another term ready for inclusion in Orwell’s pantheon of meaningless words—are both on the run and ready to strike; almost destroyed (how many “top Al Qaida operatives” have we caught or killed at this point?), but always arising. Ironically, American foreign policy ensures asymmetric retaliation, so there actually is some truth to this fear, but the political uses of these dangers, such as heightened terror alerts during presidential campaigns, are what concern me here.

As for permanent war, well, we’re in it, by all accounts, “left” and “right.” A hundred years’ war; a clash of civilizations—a permanent war against anyone not “with us.” Since the bubble of fear can only be burst by calm rational thought, such an attitude is considered treasonous. In order to test this claim, one need only bring up possible explanations, other than the innate perfidy of Al Qaida, for why 9/11 occurred at a dinner party. Of course, bereft of rational thought in a climate of constant fear, who can one turn to but Our Dear Leader? After all, his brush-clearing abilities are well-noted, and his orchestrated landings on aircraft carriers (in what I can only assume was some kind of 21st-century codpiece) and “surprise” appearances at military bases at home and abroad let us all know that Big Brother is indeed watching over the Homeland, even if he’s spending most of his time on the homestead and taking time out from playing Aragorn to rail against gay marriage. Finally, as for parasitic parliaments, the much-ballyhooed Democratic takeover of the Congress in 2006 did far less than most expected to turn the legislature into something other than a rump parliament, as any perusal of key votes on war funding, surveillance, and so forth will amply demonstrate.

And so we come to Newspeak, and thus to “homeland,” an interesting term that holds a meaning well beyond the geographical. It plays on jingoistic, even racist, notions of Blood and Soil; encourages disdain for and fear of Ausländer; prevents identification with our victims; and blinds us to our manipulation by our owners. It is unquestionably a fascist term, both in its history and in its current use in American political culture.

We now know what’s in the word “homeland.” By its political context ye shall know it. Perhaps what we will eventually need in the United States, and perhaps sooner than we think, is a White Rose—by any name.[12]

* * *

Of course, things are not entirely as gloomy as all that. Some of the argumentation above is consciously forced, and thank god it is. Even with our increasingly corporatized state and disappearing liberties, we are not quite fascist yet. Which leads me, finally, back to the dangers inherent in yelling, “Bush is a fascist!” enjoyable though it may be.

Bush’s handlers have put much effort into projecting him as The Leader: to focus solely on him is in itself Leader-worship. Bush himself is not the problem. Rather, as Sejanus was told by one of his victims in the television version of I, Claudius, he is merely the putrefaction, not the plague itself. As Camus noted, the plague is in all of us. We are all proto-fascists now, and we should resist the false comfort I see spreading over the land, whether in 1/20/09 bumper stickers or in unfounded confidence that Hillary or Barack will make it all better. That false comfort is the danger embedded in the personalization of a complex, long-standing, and widespread tendency in our political culture. Embracing some New Camelot fairy tale—substituting a Hero for a Villain—won’t make decades of structural and institutional development toward fascism simply go away. Not even if we click our heels together three times and embrace “hope” really tightly. If we do not shake off our learned infantilism, if we do not roll up our sleeves and do the hard, thankless work necessary to force real change, “homeland” will truly become Heimatland with terrible consequences not just for us but for the entire species.

For we do indeed have a homeland. It is our planet, and there doesn’t seem to be another one nearly as nice within easy reach. Its hospitality is not boundless; our species is under extreme threat—from nuclear holocaust, environmental catastrophe, and emergent diseases. These are real threats, and they are really frightening. They may be insurmountable. That is no excuse for not making an attempt. In The Lion in Winter, when Geoffrey upbraids his brother Richard (later to acquire a lion’s heart at Palestine’s expense) for thinking that the way in which one fell actually matters, Richard, perhaps channeling Camus, replies, “When the fall is all there is, it matters.” An unfortunate taste for crusading aside, he had hit on a point of some general value.

So, once the noise is filtered out, the signal is clear. If we do not learn to see our species as one community made up of equals—if we, all of us, do not truly globalize those Enlightenment-era revolutions, extending the values of equality, fraternity, and liberty to their logical political and economic conclusions without exception, then the human species will prove itself unviable. And we must be honest with ourselves, if we are truly adults: even if we do achieve that seemingly utopian but nevertheless clearly necessary goal, we may still fall, and soon. The universe is not equipped to care about us.

We, however, potentially, are.



[1] George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” in George Orwell: Essays, selected and introduced by John Carey (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), 959 [orig.: Payments Book, 11 December 1945; Horizon, April 1946.].

[2] Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism,” The New York Review of Books 42:11 (1995) http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1856 (accessed January 31, 2008).

[3] Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, “Lieberman, Specter Offer Homeland Defense Legislation[:] Proposals Will be Reviewed at Friday Hearing,” United States Senate, http://web.archive.org/web/20030709220622/http:/govt-aff.senate.gov/101101homedefpress.htm (accessed January 31, 2008).

[4] Office of the Press Secretary, “Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, October 24, 2001,” The White House, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/10/20011024-7.html#HSO-legis (accessed January 31, 2008).

[5] THOMAS, “S. 2452: National Homeland Security and Combating Terrorism Act of 2002” The Library of Congress, http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/C?c107:./temp/~c107bh7s21 (accessed January 31, 2008).

[6] Department of Homeland Security, Homepage, The White House, http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/homeland/ (accessed January 31, 2008).

[7] Department of Homeland Security, “President’s Letter,” National Strategy for Homeland Security, October 2007, The White House, http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/homeland/nshs/2007/letter.html (accessed January 31, 2008).

[8] For example, from the right, Peggy Noonan, “Rudy’s Duty—Plus: Homeland ain’t no American Word,” Wall Street Journal’s OpinionJournal, posted Friday, June 14, 2002, http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/pnoonan/?id=110001838, (accessed January 31, 2008).

[9] Joseph Goebbels, “Nation, Rise Up, and Let the Storm Break Loose,” The German Propaganda Archive, http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/goeb36.htm (accessed January 31, 2008).

[10] “Wilhelm Weiss,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_Weiss (accessed January 31, 2008).

[11] Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, New Edition, (New York: Vintage, 1966).

[12] The White Rose was an extremely courageous group of students who tried to organize resistance against the Nazi regime. The ringleaders were caught on the same day as Goebbels’ Sportpalast speech, and later executed. But that shouldn’t unduly discourage you.

2 comments:

  1. This is major horseshit; don't bother to rewrite it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh, no! A gutless anonymous troller doesn't like it! I may drown in my tears. Thanks for stopping by, four-year-old. Your bottle will be warm and ready when you return.

    ReplyDelete